Riding along on a lionfish-collecting trip in rough Florida Keys waters was an adventure for Andrew Zimmern, a popular show host on the Travel Channel.
But sampling dishes made from the invasive-exotic fish was pure pleasure, he said.
"For years, people told me that lionfish was the best eating fish they ever tasted," Zimmern said last week from the Port Largo Canal docks outside Sharkey's Pub. "They understated it," he said, pausing between bites of lionfish ceviche. "It's superb."
In the Keys to film an episode for the new Bizarre Foods America with Andrew Zimmern series, the noted chef, food writer and award-winning television host joined the Winter Locals-Only Lionfish Derby hosted by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation of Key Largo.
Skies were mostly clear but strong winds made boating and diving for lionfish a challenge, organizers said.
"It was really rough," REEF General Manager Martha Klitzkie said. "We're lucky we have so many people dedicated to the [lionfish eradication] cause."
Zimmern did not dive but journeyed out with the winning Islamorada Dive Center crew that captured 84 of the 143 lionfish taken by the contest's seven teams.
"It's just fantastic that the community puts on a great event like this," Zimmern said. "Even in these conditions, people were thrilled to be out there, slammin' the lionfish for this very important cause."
Lionfish are a Pacific species, armored with an array of venomous spines that protect it from predators. The invasive species, fast breeding and voraciously hungry, has spread through the Caribbean and poses a threat to native fish populations.
Before Thursday, the largest lionfish ever taken in a Key Largo derby was 424 millimeters, about 16.5 inches, Klitzkie said.
"Today they brought three larger than that," Klitzkie said. "The biggest was 445 millimeters."
Zimmern previously traveled the globe to film several seasons of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World. His new series on the Travel Channel focuses on offbeat American foods.
The show usually airs at 9 p.m. Mondays. Air date for the Keys edition has yet to be decided.